Is finishing top of your Champions League group overrated?
It’s that time of the year. The Champions League group stage reaches its end, and the focus is on the draw for who gets whom in the first knockout round after 32 has become 16. There’s the potential of some mouth-watering ties, some very one-sided ones, and some involving of similar non-giant ilk, and the worry is almost always over the side that finishes in second; how did Paris St. Germain slip and miss out on top spot on the final match day (2016/17), Manchester City really scored a big one by winning their group (2015/16), Real Madrid may regret not finishing first (2012/13).
In two of the cases, the popular verdict, even before the draw was made, came to pass, PSG lost out to Barcelona in the last 16 in 2017, the same stage where, the season before, Manchester City made light work of Dynamo Kiev. But PSG only went out by conceding late in that famous ridiculous game at the Nou Camp, after holding what seemed an insurmountable 4-0 lead from the first leg. Cases like that probably begs the question; is finishing top of your Champions League group overrated?
On face value, perhaps not: since the 2008/09 Champions League campaign, only 19 of the quarter-finalists didn’t win their group – a rate of 23.75% – in seven of those ten seasons, the eventual competition winners have been teams who finished top of their group. But it’s definitely not just down to finishing on a number in your group. Of those 19 group runners-up who won their last 16 ties, the only outcomes that would have been truly surprising were Sevilla knocking out Manchester United last season and Lyon beating Real Madrid in 2010, and even in the latter, prior to the meeting Lyon had a recent record of being unbeaten in their last four games against Los Blancos (an argument can also be made for Marseille knocking out Inter Milan in 2012).
It’s no new information that Real Madrid have won the last Champions League titles, and it’s definitely no secret as well that in the past two seasons, they’ve done so despite not winning their groups, just like Inter in 2010. Surely, it was no surprise that they beat PSG in the last 16 last season, or Napoli the one before that, just as it’s not the biggest jaw-dropper that Bayern Munich beat Besiktas at the same stage last season, that PSG beat Chelsea in 2016, or that Juventus knocked out Borussia Dortmund in 2015, neither did Arsenal eliminating Roma in 2009 get seen as an upset.
It surely boils down to quality more than anything else. Teams would dread meeting the likes of Atletico Madrid and Liverpool, who finished second in their respective groups, this season, just as many would have wanted to avoid Real Madrid or Bayern Munich last. And just as well many would fancy their chances with getting group winners Porto this season, as many wouldn’t have fretted had they been pitted with Besiktas last term, or Leicester in 2017 (even if the Foxes did beat Sevilla), or Schalke in 2013.
You could point at winning the group giving confidence and belief that you could go far, as Leicester showed in 2017, as well as Monaco in 2015, Malaga in 2013, or APOEL Nicosia the year before that. But there’s still a fair amount to be played between December and late February, time for things to change. In 2016, Zenit St. Petersburg were knocked out by group runners-up Benfica in 2016, the Russians suffering from lack of regular action between the conclusion of the group stage and the start of the knockout phase, which was similar when the same opposition kicked them out of the same stage four years earlier.
Plus, for teams that strive to go for the ultimate prize, facing relatively tougher opposition would come either way (or elimination), and there’s the cliché about beating the best to be the best, even if you could argue that the Champions League, like many knockout competitions, isn’t always one by the best teams, sometimes the luck of the draw can play a part. If that’s the case, Liverpool had the luck of the draw in 2005 when they got Bayer Leverkusen. No matter how you get there, first or second, the last 16 marks the beginning of the elimination phase, where round-robin records count for little. As it becomes a fist-fight, past achievements in the same season hardly matter much.